Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 8, 2001
Where kin against kin is fact of life

At War With Terror

KAPA-E-SANG, Afghanistan - As American missiles began to fall yesterday, the anti-Taliban forces here prepared for new fighting that they know could pit family against family.

Forces of the Northern Alliance said they hoped to launch ground attacks against the Taliban soon, in conjunction with U.S. and British air strikes. Last night, soldiers huddled around shortwave radios, listening to the BBC accounts of the air attacks.

For Abdul Habib, a Northern Alliance soldier here, new fighting means he may meet up soon with his brother - in combat.

A month ago, the traders who carry goods and intelligence across the battlefront brought news to Habib: The Taliban had conscripted his 15-year-old brother, Osif, and had moved him to the front line.

For Habib, 20, who became a soldier five years ago, the thought that the next wave of Taliban attackers might include his little brother does not strike him as either ironic or sad, but just a fact of life in a country that has known only war all his life. He says he would not hesitate to kill his kin.

"There is nothing to do if my brother advances on me but to shoot back," he said. "If they are coming and they shoot on us, they would kill us."

The Afghanistan civil war is often portrayed as a religious conflict: the fundamentalist Taliban against an alliance of groups opposed to its rigid interpretation of Islam.

But the soldiers at the front line rarely say they object to the Taliban's religious beliefs. To them, the Taliban represents ethnic Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, that rose to power with the aid of neighboring Pakistan. Most of the alliance fighters are Tajiks and Uzbeks, whose families trace their histories to Persians and Turks, traditional rivals to the Pashtuns.

And so the armies facing each other at the various front lines are not two anonymous forces. The combatants are often neighbors, sometimes of different ethnic groups. As with many civil wars, families sometimes find themselves on different sides of the battle.

At the fronts, the rival commanders know each other, often from fighting on the same side during one of the configurations of alliances during the last 23 years of war. They chat on the radio and urge one another to defect.

The Northern Alliance has no unified command structure. Rather, it is a coalition of local chieftains with militias who have often fought together in the holy war against the Soviet Union's occupation. And often, the local chieftains fight among themselves, as they did following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, creating a vacuum that was deftly filled by the Taliban movement.

"The troops are our relatives, our neighbors," said Pir Mohammed, the commander of this rugged stretch of raw wilderness, scarred by long earthworks and tanks entrenched in defensive positions. "They're people from our area. They're with us now; they were with us during the jihad; and they're with us in the future."

Kapa-e-Sang, in northern Afghanistan, hardly seems worth defending. A wind has kicked up so much dust that a thick haze hangs over the valley - the air and the earth the same hue of tan. The Taliban positions are barely visible, distant mirages in the fog.

At Mohammed's entrenched command post outside Taloqan, the troops do not appear to be on high alert. Cut-up playing cards were scattered in the dust after the commander declared card playing un-Islamic. There is little else to do.

One soldier, who gives his name as Jura, says he is 15. He is not yet ready to fight in the front trench, so he mostly prepares tea and the greasy rice dish that is the staple of the Afghan diet. He eagerly picks up a Kalashnikov rifle to pose for a photographer.

Most of the dozen or so soldiers stationed at the post are not wearing uniforms - some wear sneakers, leather jackets or two-piece chemises that look like pajamas. They say they are required to provide their own clothes.

Some say they had to bring their own weapons.

Habib, who wears a trademark mujaheddin felt wool cap, says many of the soldiers have family members fighting on the other side, often conscripted by the Taliban. Such was the case with his brother.

Thirteen months ago, when the Taliban captured the provincial capital of Taloqan, Habib and his family fled their farm for alliance-controlled territory. But after the opposition failed to retake Taloqan, the family grew more desperate to survive. Last winter, Habib's parents and most of his siblings decided to return to their farm.

According to the story he heard from the traders who thread their pack animals through the lines, the Taliban took his brother from the family farm about a month ago.

"If they don't go to the front line with the Taliban, they put them in prison or beat them," Habib said.

Habib said his brother, like himself, never received an education. Schools were shut during the anti-Soviet jihad, and the Taliban curtailed nonreligious training.

"I couldn't continue my education when the Taliban came, so I took up arms," Habib said. He can't read or write.

Another soldier recently learned that the Taliban had conscripted his brother, too.

Abdul Magid, who said he is 18 or 19, has already served in the military for more than one-third of his life. He said he joined after his father, a mujaheddin fighter, was killed in internecine fighting. Five brothers joined the militia to avenge their father's death.

Magid is the only one who remains a soldier. Two brothers moved to Pakistan to avoid the fighting, and two others live at the family farm near Taloqan, assuming the head-of-household role once held by their father.

Magid heard recently that the Taliban had arrested his brother, Aman Ulah, 25, and put him on the front. He said his brother couldn't escape because the Taliban would return to his farm and punish the remaining brother.

Like his compatriot Habib, Magid would set aside his personal feelings in the event he came face-to-face with his brother during a conflict.

"I shoot at him," Magid said. "He shoots at me. If you have to kill your brother, so be it. Right now, he is my enemy." home page   
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